DURATION: ca. 16 Min.
DATE: 25. August - 12. Oktober 1941
FIRST PERFORMANCE: 10. April 1944, New York (Carl Weinrich)
ERSTDRUCKE UND FRÜHE EDITIONEN: H. W. Gray, New York 1947, hrsg. v. Carl Weinrich (Pl. Nr. C.O.S. No. 13-(28))
Belmont Music Publishers (USA, Canada, Mexico): Bel 1028
Carl Weinrich (Gray Publications): GCOS 00013
It appears from the correspondence between Schönberg and William Strickland, the general editor of the Contemporary Organ Series, that at the beginning of August 1941 Schönberg was invited to contribute a composition to the series. Immediately he started to write a dodecaphonic sonata, but Strickland called for a set of variations, or a suite. On 25 August Schönberg set out to compose the Variations on a Recitative in D minor, thus abandoning the idea of the dodecaphonic sonata. The manuscript of the Organ Variations was finished on 12 October 1941. Although the recitative represents a perfectly rounded-off form, it is not a self-contained theme, as one might expect from "theme and variations"; rather it exposes a number of ideas to be developed later on. The theme contains all the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. Due to its beginning and conclusion, D stands out as the tonic; but the key of D minor is not spelled out tonally. The variations are constructed in a very strict way, not only because of their number of measures but also in that the tones of the recitative are sounded as a more or less hidden cantus firmus throughout each of them.
Schönberg was in no way a connaisseur of the organ, and it was actually the first time he composed music for that instrument. However, already at the beginning of the century he started to write an article "Die Zukunft der Orgel" ("The Future of the Organ") in which he advanced the viewpoint that at the beginning of the 20th century one had to consider the organ as an obsolete instrument. He found that the organ was more apt to glorify the performer than to serve the interests of the composer. Unfortunately this article exists only as a fragment, and in its two pages Schönberg never explains what kind of future he actually foresaw for the organ. In a letter dated 10 May 1949 to Werner David, who prompted the first Berlin performance of the Variations, op. 40, Schönberg sketched the kind of organ he felt would meet the demands of a modern composer. The instrument he envisioned was small, one and a half times as big as a portable typewriter, having two to six stops, each of which, however, should cover the entire range of seven to eight octaves and all dynamic levels.
© Arnold Schönberg Center